Writing Tip Wednesday: “Clutter” Part (1)

Dear Trojans,

I’m sure you’ve never encountered a rambling faculty member among your Trojan instructors.  But you may know that such people do exist (from acquaintances in other graduate schools, or even from your own undergrad experience).  And you’ve probably heard that students usually find this type of professor tedious or even “boring.”Clutter 2

Guess what.  Students aren’t the only ones who dread long-windedness.  Professors have an equal aversion to garrulous students!  When you’ve rambled on for 18 pages (front and back!), your instructor’s eyes glaze over, and it becomes difficult for her to concentrate on the content of your essay.  Eliminating (or at least minimizing) wordiness from your papers will increase their cogency and ensure that your observations and ideas can shine without being eclipsed by turgid prose.

Below are some tips to help emancipate your writing from the shackles of wordiness.

  1.  Read William Zinsser’s “Clutter.”  This is a great introduction to the paradigm of clean, simple writing.  Though the first edition of Zinsser’s classic was published in the 1970s, the truths he espouses—particularly about clutter—are more applicable in academia than ever before.
  2. Break free of the “more is better” impulse.  Don’t assume that the grade your paper will receive is correlated with the number of words you type. (Any good instructor will assure you that this is a complete fallacy.)  If you find yourself on the wrong side of a minimum page limit, expand your paper by adding content, not just adding more words.  One good way to do this is with the Topoi invention exercise.
  3. Read your paper aloud.  If you can’t finish a sentence in a single breath (and no cheating—read at a normal speed!) that can be an indication that your sentence is too long.  Take extra care with those sentences to find places to cut a word or two.
  4. Learn from your mistakes.  We all have pet phrases or syntactical patterns that add words without conveying any additional meaning.  Take the time to diagnose one of your papers, and note what specific three or four wordy habits you have.  Then scrutinize future assignments for these same problems.  (Type freely in the writing stage, but eliminate wordiness in the editing stage.)
  5. Find a friend.  Most of us are better at identifying other people’s poor life choices than we are at spotting our own.  The same is true of wordiness.  Partner up with a classmate, and agree to check each other’s papers for clutter.  You’ll catch things your colleagues missed in his own assignment, and vice versa.  And after you’re aware of these new wordiness problems, apply tip #4.

Next week we’ll look at specific types of clutter, and ways to eliminate them from your writing.

Happy (clutter-free) writing,
James

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